The Empire of Art


Dear Artist,

Unlike the Roman, the British, or any other Empires under the sun, the Empire of Art rises from grass roots just about everywhere. While its citizens speak a variety of tongues, they are understood pretty well universally. If you include the larger sphere of the written arts, photography, film, video and the spoken word, it’s one of the greatest communities in the history of mankind. This Empire has as many states as there are artists, and all these states have unique and sovereign constitutions. And while many have agendas, motives and philosophies, many others are content to simply honour our world and its life.


“Reclining Tahitian Women”
oil on canvas, 1894
60 x 98 cm (23 5/8 x 38 9/16 in.)
by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Unlike religions, which have a history of divisiveness, the Empire of Art, while full of factions and schisms, brings people together on common ground. While it will not be possible to run out of words to talk or write about it, art’s unique quality is that it’s a “doing” thing. It’s mainly a private activity, like prayer, which takes place in our own sanctuaries. Further, it seems logical to the citizens of this Empire that they have as much right to honour our world at a distance as closer to home. “Citizen of the World,” is a privilege frequently claimed by artists.


“Christina Olson”
gouache, 1947
by Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

Does this Empire have any moral fibre? When we look around we cannot help but be amazed at the facility of our collective hands. These hands assemble, draw attention, make beautiful, monumentalize, and take part in ongoing creation. When we look at the hands of Da Vinci, Gauguin, or Andrew Wyeth, we see evidence of this Empire. The contribution of our Empire is destined to continue and to be even greater, and the greatest of all will be respect.


“Mona Lisa”
oil on poplar, ca. 1503–1506
77 × 53 cm (30 in × 21 in)
by Leonardo da Vinci

Best regards,


PS: “Art is a language, an instrument of knowledge, an instrument of communication.” (Jean Dubuffet)

Esoterica: As an aid to quality, it’s useful to realize we’re taking part in something greater. At an ancient mahogany easel, an Underwood portable, or at a Formica table in a kitchen corner, we make modest objects that have a brilliant and civilizing potential.

This letter was originally published as “The Empire of Art” on February 16, 2001.


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Clownfish by Kim Rody, Stuart, Florida, USA


acrylic on canvas 18 x 18 inches
by Kim Rody, Stuart, Florida, USA




  1. I hadn’t thought of my self as a member of the Empire of Art. Thank You for opening my eyes. Glad to know that I am part of something greater and “doing” some thing to affect change in this world, no matter how small. Haven’t seen “The Reclining Tahitian Women” – the colors are so brilliant; indeed a lovely painting.

  2. I love the clown fish painting at the bottom of this Robert Genn page. The idea of a community of artists is good, but we have to be careful we don’t see ourselves as separate and elite members of society as a whole. Creativity and the “doing thing” is not unique to artists.

  3. Sara,

    What Robert wrote was of course true about genuine art. Today’s sad truth, however, is that the “empire” he referred to is totally excluded from the artworld establishment’s view of “contemporary art”–as I argue in my recent book, ‘Who Says That’s Art? A Commonsense View of the Visual Arts.’

    Gauguin, by the way, is one of the genuine artists featured in my chapter entitled ‘The Pleasures and Rewards of Art–Real Art, That Is.’ So nice to see his ‘Reclining Tahitian Women’ adorn the post! And Wyeth’s ‘Christiana Olson’–above–gets high praise in my chapter debunking modernist critics.

    Michelle Kamhi
    Co-Editor (with Louis Torres), Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  4. Citizen of the World? Robert Genn had an expansive existence. Yet this seems too small. After seeing the Michael Renne film ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ at about 6- (a film that altered my perception of reality forever) I grew up on science fiction books. Long ago I had to acknowledge that Galactic Citizen is the smallest possible world-view I can hold. Sorry if that blows your mind.

    Most everyone has the capacity to express creatively in some fashion- but that inclination got repressed- as artists are often seen starving and therefore- a burden on somebody. So few have acted on the impulse to create. And fewer still have actually led our collective culture into the future.

    The status quo wants robots. Artists deserve recognition for the unmeasurable value they bring to the social order. Elite? After struggling for an entire lifetime? Does privilege mean anything to you?

  5. Love the comment “make modest objects that have a brilliant and civilizing potential”. Every since reading a children’s book to my son many years ago I have embraced the idea of two things (at the very least) in my life – do something every day to make the world a better place, and do something every day to make the world more beautiful.

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